BSO's "Beethovan/Strauss": All in the Family

Andris Nelsons & the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The second program of the current season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a mixed bag, offering concrete evidence of why some musical compositions attain the status of “war horses”, beloved by concertgoers and thus frequently a part of an orchestra's offerings, while some sink into relative obscurity. To the former category of works one would by all means include Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Opus 61, which has been performed in about seventy-five BSO concerts over the years, and featured such soloists as Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, Mutter, Midori, Zukerman and Bell.

The violinist for the present program was renowned instrumentalist Augustin Hadelich, born in Italy of German parents, now an American citizen, who has justly been universally acclaimed for his performances of this piece, and proved to the BSO audience that this reception was well earned. Conductor Andris Nelsons led the company in a beautifully nuanced rendition that respected both the soloist's sensitivity and the orchestra's professionalism. Broadly lyrical as the work is, it displays the composer's relaxed expression in contrast to his prior work on the Eroica, but still conveying the heroic elements of his music. First written for, and performed by, the famed prodigy Franz Clement (at one time the conductor of Vienna's Theater an der Wien) in 1806, the concerto was first heard in America at the Philharmonic Society at the Academy of Music in New York in 1861, though its first movement was presented eight years earlier by the Mendelssohn Quintette Club in Boston. It would not be heard in Symphony Hall until 1884, but swiftly became a solid staple of the orchestra over the years. In this production, Hadelich showed why it has also become a personal staple, with the added flourish of the well-regarded cadenza created by Fritz Kreisler. He surely earned the several standing ovations he received, and rewarded the response with an encore, definitive proof of familiarity not breeding contempt.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The second work performed was a decidedly less familiar one, namely the "Symphonia Domestica”, Opus 53, by Richard Strauss. While it has been described as a showpiece for an orchestra, it hasn't achieved popularity or even familiarity among concert audiences, perhaps because of its being more of a tone poem, written in 1903 after another of his tone poems, A Hero's Life, about himself, no less. This domestic symphony, about forty-five minutes in length, is explicitly about a day in the life of his family, with themes centering around his wife, their infant son Franz, and, again, himself. The composer spelled out the various themes (basically a cradle song, an extended love scene and a morning after breakfast dispute, which he introduced at Carnegie Hall, to little acclaim. It struck audiences then (and now) as unfocused and disjointed. While it has some moments of interest that show the promise of works that would follow (operas of course, such as Der Rosenkavalier), it remains more of a curiosity than a piece of memorable composition. The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave it its due with a rousing performance of the work when indicated, but did little to enhance the reputation of the music, given its specific concentration on the composer's family and a rather prosaic day in their lives.

Strauss' disdain for critics of the work was expressed after its premiere in New York in 1861, in correspondence to his parents, with the description of the critics having “swung into line and shut their collective trap”. And so shall we.

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